By Mark Wallace
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A couple of hours ago, two backbenchers – John Baron MP and Peter Bone MP – tabled an amendment to the Queen's Speech, expressing regret that the Government had not announced an EU referendum bill.
Having spoken to Peter Bone, it's clear the amendment has been carefully drafted and targeted. The classic problem for eurosceptics – inside the Commons and out – has traditionally been the tendency to split into a myriad of different camps. This week has been no different, with some wanting the Prime Minister's 2017 referendum put into law, others wanting a law guaranteeing a referendum before 2015 and still others proposing a "mandate referendum" to take place before the negotiations begin (as Paul Goodman discussed here).
As a result of those differences of opinion, an amendment pushing one plan or another would be doomed to gather only limited support. Instead, the Baron/Bone text simply expresses regret at the lack of a referendum bill – and therefore, all of the above groups can support it. This is a scheme aiming to attract the widest possible support, rather than to push a specific, purist agenda.
That fact points to its real aim: keeping the EU In/Out story in the media. It has been tabled at precisely at the right time to keep the coverage rolling after this week's articles from Lord Lawson, Michael Portillo and Gisela Stuart, and flirtatious comments from Boris and Lord Lamont.
Rather than running out of steam over the weekend, as Number 10 might have hoped, the issue now has the legs to carry it into next week. The Speaker is reportedly minded to accept the amendment, which would mean a vote possbly on Tuesday or, more likely, Wednesday.
That weekend is no accident. The eurosceptics are hopeful that their colleagues will, when they return to their constituencies, find that their voters and activists would very much like them to support the amendment.
I'm told there are 14 signatories at the time of writing – including some Labour MPs and, notably, the newly returned Nadine Dorries, who given yesterday's events is essentially immune from the Whips. That number will surely grow, particularly if Labour MPs realise that Conservative and UKIP PPCs across the country will be watching closely to see if they refuse to support a simple statement that the people should have a say on our relationship with the EU.
All in all, a very cunning plan – and one that helps to ensure the news agenda will continue to be full of discussions about our EU membership for days to come.